Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What can opera do that spoken plays can’t?
When you’re a writer, it’s what Shaw says: All writing aspires to the quality of music. No matter how great the writing is in a play, it’s always going through the prison house of language; there’s always rationality attached to it. And it’s thrilling when your words are sung. It goes places; it makes things possible.
Maybe if I were Shakespeare, it would be possible without music, but for me there’s a frustration, a ceiling I feel I’m banging my head against. But in Mozart, in Shostakovich, in Wagner, often, you get this feeling that you’re rooted in the rational but you’ve gone to some place that isn’t circumscribed by geometry any more. It’s in another realm.
So what was your feeling when an ‘Angels’ opera was proposed?
A number of composers had set parts of the play. And then I got a call from the Châtelet Theater [in Paris], asking if I had an interest in letting Peter Eotvos do an opera of the whole thing. And I got a copy of his “Three Sisters,” which is stunning, daunting, really powerful. And I thought, sure, why not?
I had one conversation with Mr. Eotvos, and he asked if I’d be interested in organizing a libretto. And I said: “No [expletive] way, it’s seven hours of text. I really recommend you find one string of scenes or just do Prior’s story or just do Roy and Joe, and boil it down.” I didn’t see how you would even tell a CliffsNotes version in anything under dozens of hours — it would become “The Ring of the Nibelung” or “War and Peace.”
He thanked me, and he and his wife [Mari Mezei] sat down and did their version, and I had almost no contact with them from that point until the opening at the Châtelet.
And I was thrilled. If you don’t know the story at all, I’m not entirely sure you can follow it. But I chose to sort of relax about that a third of the way through the first time and look at it as a meditation on people in the middle of a modern plague. I thought it was a wonderful distillation of at least part of the spirit of the play, and, in a way, who cares? It’s its own work of art.
Did the opera help you understand the play in a new way?
Every time I do a new production of “Perestroika” [the second part of “Angels”], the thing that has tormented me the most is the angel’s epistle with Prior. And Eotvos’s setting of it, the kind of blood-freezing, apocalyptic chiming of it, the warmth of parts of it, I found electrifying.
I don’t have traditional music training, but when you listen to a quartet or octet, you can start to hear how the structures of music are built. And fancy you’re understanding them in the way you understand string theory when you read an article on quantum physics. When I was organizing “Millennium Approaches” [the first part of “Angels”], I listened to Beethoven’s middle string quartets and a lot of Haydn string quartets and thought about a theme, a countertheme and something that runs up the middle, and I tried to organize it like that.
Some critics said the opera took away some of the play’s political content.
In a certain sense, yes. Eotvos was, I think, very drawn to the personal, the tragic dimensions of it, the struggle over bodies. It’s very clear in Mike Nichols’s film version, too, that the political and metaphysical were of less interest to him than the personal.
But anything that’s about gay men or the L.G.B.T.Q. community, even with all the progress that’s been made, is unignorably political. I would never agree with criticisms that the opera’s not political because it cut some of the stuff about Reagan. And my work always does best under Republican administrations — or whatever you call what this is now.
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